A FRANK Tale: Passion

(Most images in this post are courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey at Real Fine Food, a blogger who often attends our dinners to photograph and blast them onto social media.  Find her on Facebook and Instagram also.  Thanks, Stephanie!)

FRANK has been getting an uncomfortable amount of press recently, and while we shouldn’t complain…(all the press has been exceedingly praiseworthy)…the word is getting out, demand is going up, and we’re having to pace ourselves to ensure that we’re not just cranking the dinners out, rather than giving each one the time and effort it deserves.  Lots of folks want us to open a restaurant…but then…it wouldn’t be FRANK anymore.

To complicate matters, because we’re now in the public eye, we’re starting to attract a bizarre series of fake Yelp reviews.  We’re not sure why people who’ve never been to FRANK feel it’s important for them to submit a great review for us.  A recent one states, “Great music. My favorites from the menu: kimchi burger, fried mashed potatoes always a good idea and a cocktail that is no longer on the menu.”  Luckily, Yelp seems to magically recognize that most of these reviews are bogus, and they file them under the “Unrecommended Reviews” section.  But we got a big kick out of the kimchi burger and fried mashed potatoes bit.  Oh…and especially that cocktail that’s no longer on the menu.  EVERYTHING at FRANK is no longer on the menu.  We only do a menu once.

I digress.  Back to FRANK!  So Valentine’s was approaching, and this is always a big time of year for us.  For ANY restaurant, really.  The whole country goes out to eat on Valentine’s Day.  This year we decided to boldly try something we’ve never done before…3 successive weeks of events, 12 dinners, 240 diners.  That’s tricky, because a lot of our local farmers don’t necessarily produce in that kind of quantity, but after chatting with them, we decided to give it a go.

In terms of themes, our first Valentine’s dinners had a “chocolate” theme…every course had chocolate in it:

Then, in 2014, our menu was composed of historical aphrodisiacs:

So as we were tossing around possible theme ideas for 2015, Adrien suggested we focus on all red foods, since red is the color of the holiday.  That idea sounded cool, but stating the theme as “RED” seemed weird, so Jennie suggested “PASSION” instead.  And we ran with it.

The dinner was doing to be documented by a food writer from Edible Magazine, which celebrates restaurants featuring local ingredients, and as we were going around to our farmers and suppliers to gather ingredients and inspiration, we discovered that the “Passion” theme didn’t only encompass red ingredients.  It sort of became a mantra for the entire FRANK concept.  These farmers give their lives to the soil, coaxing beautiful ingredients from the ground, carefully raising generations of meat animals…this life is a challenging one, and not one that is easily perpetuated unless you have a true passion for it.  Then these farmers turn their ingredients over to US, and WE have a passion for transforming them respectfully and conscientiously into a beautiful plate of delicious food to put in front of our DINERS, who are passionate enough about food to come to a complete stranger’s house to have dinner with a bunch of other complete strangers.  So not only were our ingredients passionately red…the concept of passion ran deep throughout this menu, as well as ALL our menus.  Here’s what we came up with:

When our diners arrive at this secret location they only found out about 24 hours beforehand, they are always welcomed with a drink and an “amuse-bouche” (a French term for a small bite to awaken the palate…ie, an appetizer) and this time the drink was a Kir Royale.  A “Kir” is a cocktail made of white wine and some type of fruit liqueur, traditionally “Creme de Cassis” which is currant liqueur.  There are dozens of variations, with “Kir Royale” subbing Champagne for the wine, and sometimes (at least in America) Chambord (raspberry liqueur) rather than Creme de Cassis.  These cocktails tend to be sugary-sweet, so we tempered ours with fresh cranberry puree.  Our amuse-bouche was a combo of spicy Mexican-style chorizo tossed with tiny cubes of very crisp potato, topped with crema, a pickled garlic flower, and a pickled slice of red Fresno pepper.  A very full-flavored bite with quite a bit of heat (balanced, though, by the crema and the acidity of the pickles), and lots of different textures:

Mexican chorizo, crispy potato, crema, pickled Fresno and garlic blossom. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey.

Garden Harvests' baby beet greens and romaine, blood orange, pomegranate arils, pickled red onion, watermelon radish, pom vinaigrette, 63 degree local duck egg, housemade 8 month bleu ricotta salata. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey.

First up was the evening’s salad.  Now, I know a few of you go absolutely nuts for a great salad, but you are the definite minority.  Most people endure a salad course to get to the “real” stuff after.  But a surprising number of diners (and mostly guys, believe it or not) said to us, “Now, I am NOT a salad guy.  At all.  But that salad was really, really my favorite thing of the night.”  Our salad had, as its foundation, some beautiful baby romaine and baby beet greens from a farm just south of Dallas called Garden Harvests.  It can be exasperating for chefs to find local produce in the winter here in North Texas, because most farmers here let their fields lie “fallow” in winter.  (This lets the soil rest and rebuild nutrients for the next season’s planting.)  But not Garden Harvests.  They produce year-round and use permaculture-inspired soil building techniques to ensure their soil is healthy and productive all the time.  Our friends there, Jessica (sister of famed singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe) and Fina (who used to be an executive chef for Whole Foods) raise produce throughout the winter, and we are SO lucky to have such a great relationship with them.  Their greens were from-the-field fresh, tender, and delicious.  We added red ingredients like pickled onion, pomegranate arils, and blood orange, and dressed it all in a perky pomegranate vinaigrette.  Watermelon radishes are in season now, and most folks have never seen this unique heirloom radish that looks like a watermelon in cross section, so we added a hefty slice of that.  And we were SUPER lucky to be able to source enough local duck eggs to feature one on the plate.  Ducks aren’t like chickens, which will keep laying eggs year round if you keep pulling eggs out of the nesting box.  Ducks will only lay a handful of eggs a year, and if you keep taking them, they’ll just stop laying when they’re done.  But we have access to a wonderful local duck farmer, Maria Garcia, via the Fresh and Local Produce Stand of Melissa.  Mona, the proprietor there, calls Maria the “unlikely duck farmer.”  She never set out to farm ducks, but she loves ducks so much she’d take in an orphaned duckling, or a flock a farmer no longer wanted, and soon she had TONS of ducks on her property.  Our winter here in Texas has been VERY strange, and her ducks are just laying like crazy.  So while ANY local chef would laugh at you if you asked him if he could source 240 local duck eggs for a menu, we had the last laugh when Mona said, “Sure I can give you 20 dozen.  Could you take 40 dozen?”  Our duck egg was prepared our traditional way…slow-cooked in the shell in a controlled-temperature water bath (ie, immersion circulator or “sous vide”) for a full hour at low temp.  While we’ve found that hen eggs are perfect at 63.5C (or 146.3F), duck eggs seem to reach the perfect consistency at 63C (or 145.4F).  And yes, there’s a HUGE difference in texture between each 10th of a degree!  When you cook an egg at exactly its coagulation temperature for an extended period of time, you get this impossibly-delicate, custard-like, silken texture to the egg…it becomes something extraordinary, rather than mundane.  And since a duck egg has a much higher yolk-to-white ratio, you get so much more of that sinfully rich yolk, which is set so gently that it doesn’t run when you cut into it, but has the texture of whipped yogurt.  And the final component to this gorgeous salad was a housemade cheese…something I accidentally invented last year when I was making cheeses regularly.

When you make a lot of cheese, you end up with a lot of whey…the liquid that separates from the milk fat when it curdles.  Whey still has some particles of milk fat in it, and those can be extracted with the ricotta method.  Everyone knows ricotta.  But the Italians make a hard cheese by salting the ricotta curds generously and pressing them in a cheese press overnight.  This is known in Italy as “ricotta salata” or salted ricotta.  They typically use this as a grating cheese, and it tastes similar to Mexican cotija.  I accidentally left a wheel of ricotta salata in my ageing chamber next to a bleu cheese for a few months, and forgot about it.  When I found it, it was covered in the blue mold “penicillium roqueforti” that had migrated over to it from my bleu cheeses.  P. roqueforti not only has a distinctive flavor, but it transforms the inner texture of cheeses, and by the time I cut into this accidentally forgotten wheel, its interior was no longer granular like a traditional ricotta salata, it was much creamier, and had the flavor of a bleu, but the texture of a gouda.  So I made a few more wheels of ricotta salata, using raw goat milk from the Latte Da Dairy in Flower Mound, deliberately innoculated them with p. roqueforti, and aged them for 8 months at 85% humidity and 55F, taking them past that gouda texture to something more like an aged cheddar.  The resulting cheese was just mind blowing…like nothing I had ever tasted before.  Probably because it originated as a mistake.  Happy accidents!  If you’re interested in cheesemaking, here’s my article on this cheese and several variations.  It’s actually quite easy to make at home, and you only need a few special pieces of equipment.

Housemade bleu ricotta salata, aged 8 months.

There's a secret hot spring out there, waiting for you to find it!

Soups are sort of a FRANK institution…they often garner more “favorite of the night” votes than even the main course, and this menu was no exception.  As we were thinking about red soups, Jennie brought up a memory the 3 of us chefs shared from just over a year ago, when we road-tripped together from Dallas to San Francisco last January.  We had many adventures, including soaking in a wild hot spring in a deserted valley between snow-capped peaks in the center of nowhereNevada.  And by the time we reached San Francisco, we were tired of road trip food and wanted something fresh and fulfilling.  Jennie’s chef-friend Erin welcomed us into her extraordinary home with a meal I’ll remember forever…a roast chicken, crusty bread, and a romesco sauce…OH that sauce…  Romesco is a Spanish dish, a puree of red pepper, nuts, and oil.  (Think of it like Spain’s version of pesto.)  Erin’s romesco was so fresh and bright and explosive…after we had cleaned our plates of it, we fought over the last bits in the serving bowl, and then we raided the kitchen because we knew the Vitamix would still have some left in it.  We could not shut up about how delicious it was.  And since we all 3 shared that same memory, Jennie was inspired to create a soup based around that sauce…and again, the “soup-whisperer” did it.  A Romesco soup of fire roasted red peppers, roasted tomatoes, our slow-cooked confit garlic, and thickened with almond butter.  It almost tasted like pureed bacon, it was so smoky and meaty, though it was, in fact, a vegetarian soup.  Adrien prepared a really bright herb puree to swirl on top, and I made a buttery focaccia which we toasted with 3-year Vermont cheddar for our diners to dip into the soup.  It was like the best-ever grilled cheese and tomato soup you ever ate on a cold, rainy night:

"Romesco" soup: fire roasted red pepper and tomato, almond butter, herb oil, served with housemade focaccia and 3-yr Vermont cheddar crostini. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey

It has become a FRANK tradition to serve a boozy sorbet before the main course, and even though last year we served a passion-fruit sorbet, and even though passion fruit isn’t red, we knew we HAD to have passion fruit somewhere on our Passion menu.  To change it up from last year, I selected the Brazilian cocktail “caipirinha” (“KAI-pee-DEEN-ya”) as our inspiration.  Caipirinhas are only just now making their way onto American bar menus, typically followed by the interpretive phrase “Brazilian margarita.”  The caipirinha is traditionally made with lime juice, sugar, and cachaça (kah-SHAH-sah), the national liquor of Brazil.  Distilled from sugar cane juice, like rum or Peruvian pisco, cachaça can be white (young) or gold (“ouro” or barrel aged).  Only a handful of cachaças are imported in the US, and most of them aren’t very good.  MY favorite brand is Cachaça Seleta, which you can only get in Brazil, but since Christian’s family visits frequently, they always bring me a suitcase full.  It’s an ouro cachaça, barrel aged, but still clearly retains the raw-sugar character that reminds me of molasses.  And my favorite cocktail is a caipirinha maracuja…passion fruit, lime, sugar, and Cachaça Seleta.  So our sorbet was just that.  Bright, rich, tangy, and exotic.  (People wanted more.)  We topped the sorbet with a candied hibiscus flower.  Hibiscus is used to make a variety of teas around the world, notably the sweet and tangy “Jamaica” beverage served at traditional Mexican restaurants.  The flowers are tart and acidic.  We simmered a handful of the dried flowers in a sugar syrup for an hour to reconstitute them, but they retained their characteristic crunch.  I could literally eat these like popcorn, they are so crispy and good.

Passion fruit cachaça sorbet with candied hibiscus flower. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey

For the main course, we knew we had to serve a RED colored meat, and that usually means beef.  We’ve been spoiled of late, having access to Beeman Family Ranch’s incredible prime Texas Akaushi/Wagyu.  But the Beeman family has ranches all over the state, and they do the “intensive finishing” method where their cattle are corralled for the last few months of their life, eating only corn to fatten them up.  Fatty is definitely what you want for cuts like brisket and short rib, and steaks like ribeye.  But we’ve really been on the hunt for something MORE local than Beeman, and perhaps a bit more natural…ideally cattle that aren’t “finished” and spend their entire lives at pasture.  Enter Triple J Livestock.  Farmers Diane and Benjamin run this extraordinary small farm exactly 17 miles from FRANK, and their entire farming model is based around their pastures.  Their animals spend their entire lives right there on the farm.  They are born there, they live in the pasture, and there’s a USDA-inspected processing facility right there on the farm.  So their animals are never subjected to the terrifying 18-wheeler or train ride to a “finishing lot” where they live in the dust and manure with thousands of other cattle, eating only corn, before being shipped again to the processing facility.  It really is amazing.  They also raise sheep and goats, and let me tell you how hard it is to find local lamb here!  (Dallas-area residents…they sell to the general public and you don’t have to commit to buying a whole side of beef, give them a call and tell them what you’re looking for…say 12 pounds of tenderloin?…and they’ll see what they can do for you.  Also, it’s the only place I know of where you can pick your lamb or goat right out of the pasture and they process it for you while you wait.)  We literally did a dance of joy after we found them and went down there to take a look at the farm.  The animals are so happy and well-cared for.  And as the old-world farmers in Europe will tell you, an animal that lives a happy life without stress or worry tastes infinitely better than an animal who lives otherwise.  (Though the better flavor is incidental.  ALL animals should be raised with care and treated with love and respect, whether they are a meat animal or a companion.)

Our main course had a base of farro (pronounced acceptably both as “FAH-roe” and “FAIR-roe”), which is a method of cooking wheat and its related grains (spelt, triticale, barley, rye, etc.) similarly to the way you make risotto from rice.  It is sauteed with aromatics and then cooked slowly with wine and stock.  We used red wine for ours, in keeping with the theme.  Farro is vaguely similar to risotto, only much more toothsome and hearty.  I love it.  And more than a handful of diners said it was their single favorite flavor of the meal.  On top of our farro we served red Swiss chard prepared two ways: roasted and pickled.  And then a beautiful piece of steak from Triple J.  Most nights we served sirloin, which is probably my personal favorite all-around steak.  It tastes like beef, has a bit of bite, and doesn’t have the mega fat content of ribeye or NY strip.  (On Valentine’s we served filet/tenderloin, which is perceived by the market as being the “primo” cut because it’s tender, but tenderness means less flavor, because the muscle gets very little exercise.  I’m not a fan of tenderloin.)  We don’t serve steak very often at FRANK because we have 18-20 diners, and we work out of a home kitchen.  You can’t cook 20 steaks to order and serve them simultaneously from a home kitchen.  But we have a trick that makes it easier for us.  We cook our steaks with the “sous vide” method.  We vacuum seal the whole roast (after liberally seasoning it) and put it in a controlled-temperature water bath and cook it for several hours at exactly medium-rare temp (130F).  This ensures that the steaks don’t overcook, but gives the meat time to reabsorb those juices that normally flood out of the steak when you cut it, which is what gives some diners the impression that they’re eating raw, bloody meat.  So those folks who love rare and medium rare meat are still getting that perfect red-pink color when they cut into it, but those who are squeamish of rare meats find a texture inside that is completely non-scary…tender yet firm, moist but not oozing red juice all over the plate.  We give the steaks a quick high-temp sear in cast iron for a few seconds just before serving to get that lovely crust, drape it in a red wine sauce and top with some beet microgreens, and the steak completes the RED plate:

Red wine farro, braised and pickled chard, Triple J Farms sirloin. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey

When we were developing the menu for a red-themed meal, and it came time for dessert, none of us could get away from that awful American abomination known as Red Velvet Cake.  Now, when you say, “Red Velvet Cake” to a crowd, you’ll get only 2 reactions: gagging and dry heaving, or MMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!  No one feels indifferent about it.  But let me ask a different question:

“WHAT IS RED VELVET CAKE?”

You’ll get a variety of answers.  “That cake from Steel Magnolias.”  “I don’t know, but it’s red flavored.”  Someone in-the-know will tell you, “It’s a chocolate cake with red food coloring in it.”  And they are correct.  But my question was always, “WHY?  FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?  DO WE NEED TO PUT RED FOOD COLORING?  IN CHOCOLATE CAKE?”  What’s the point?  Especially since, in order for the red color to come through, we have to put LESS chocolate in the cake than in a normal chocolate cake?  So it’s just this weird some-what chocolate cake that’s “red flavored?”  Turns out there’s a VERY long and “colorful” history behind red velvet cake that dates back to well before the 1800s, and the cake wasn’t made with food coloring until the late Great Depression.  It was red-colored because of a natural chemical reaction between unprocessed cocoa powder and acidic buttermilk.  But when cocoa manufacturers started treating cocoa with lye to darken its color and make it appear richer and more luxurious, that chemical reaction stopped happening.  Determined to reconstruct the centuries-old recipe that magically acquired the color via natural means, I spent a few days experimenting.  And I figured it out.  You can read ALL about the history of Red Velvet Cake and get my recipe right here on my blog.

Traditional chocolate cake at left. Old-fashioned red velvet cake at right, with NO food coloring OR beet juice. Click the image for the recipe.

So, with that little problem solved, we built our dessert around REAL Red Velvet Cake.  We topped the cake with a ganache made of white chocolate and baby beets (from Garden Harvests Farm, of course).  Since Red Velvet is usually served with cream cheese frosting, we made a cream cheese ice cream (with raw milk from Lucky Layla Dairy in Plano) and accented it with white pepper to give it some heat.  Adrien made a raspberry puree for the plate, and also soaked some plums in fermenting hibiscus tea, which naturally carbonated them, so they were a little fizzy, tart, and sweet.  We garnished with baby rose leaves and pink peppercorns.  It was a raucously-red dessert with tons of flavors and textures.

Real Red Velvet Cake (with no food coloring or beet juice), white chocolate and baby beet ganache, cream cheese white pepper ice cream, raspberry puree, carbonated plum. Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey.

Another crazy FRANK menu behind us.  The diners had a blast, per usual, and I always say to them, “Food is only a fraction of FRANK.  The reason it is such a rare and memorable experience for you is because of YOU.  And everyone sitting around you.”  Great restaurants are a dime a dozen all over the country, whether you’ve got a Michelin-starred chef churning out modernist masterpieces, or a fleet of hard-working Latino line cooks masterfully controlling 20 different orders at once, or Mom and Sis in the back preparing recipes passed down through the generations of their families.  Great food is EVERYWHERE.  What makes FRANK unique is that we force you to sit uncomfortably close to perfect strangers, in a weird place that’s clearly not a restaurant, and you suddenly discover that if you take a moment to REACH OUT to people, you might discover that there’s a much bigger world beyond your family, work, and friends.  Somewhere along the line, Americans got too busy with family, work, and friends to participate in their community.  Then something called “social media” made it possible for us to not actually need to spend any actual TIME with our family and friends to remain “connected” to them.  So our culture is gradually retreating behind the closed doors of our homes to the point that we don’t know our neighbors, we avoid eye contact with strangers at the gas station and the grocery store, and the idea of having to share a table at a restaurant with another party is abhorrent and horrifying to us.  FRANK proves that food has the power to overcome those barriers and let folks discover that perfect strangers can become dear friends over a radically short period of time, if you’ll only give it a chance.  Our communal table is infinitely more important than the food we put on top of it.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie M. Casey.


8 Responses to A FRANK Tale: Passion

  1. I’m weird as it is, and a couple of days ago, it hit me that since you were making your bleu ricotta salata… In order to still sound Italian, the idea of “ricotta azzurra” (blue ricotta) atuck in my head. Of course, it’s just something that stuck, and not really a suggestion, but me venting outl

  2. I still drool when I think of your “aphrodisiac dinner”, back in 2014 (and that’s just from the description!!).
    This year I’m really intrigued with the red velvet cake, which started with your previous post. Not being american, I was actually very confused about the whole bright red cake and now that you’ve cover the historical part, I cannot wait to try a proper red velvet without artificial colors.
    The rest of the menu looks great as well, this year (salad and steak look particuarly awesome).
    Hope I can have a taste someday! Until then, my very best wishes.

  3. Hi Ben,
    you gotta try this! grilled pineapple caprese eggs benedict with coconut hollandaise – I thought the concept weird until I tried it, and it blew me away! I thought – benedicts=Ben Starr, and I just had to share it with you!

    http://www.halfbakedharvest.com/grilled-pineapple-caprese-eggs-benedict-with-coconut-almond-hollandaise/

  4. Ben,
    I’ve always been intrigued in this whole FRANK concept, the whole local, farm to table kind of thing — still hoping one of these days (sooner rather than later, I hope!) that I can come down to Texas to bring a little Canadian flavour at one of these, and maybe bring the idea back up north…
    Ah, dreams…

  5. Ben – would you say something about the wine (or other beverages) that you served with the dinner? I always love to hear what folks pair with what! Thanks!

    • Hi, Bev! Jennie tends to handle the wine pairings because she’s really knowledgeable in that area. I don’t remember the sparkling we served for the main, but our white was a Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc from Sonoma and our red was an Oak Ridge Zin from Lodi.

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